Kayla Reefer

Taraji P. Henson Is Going Back to Her Roots

The actress opens up about her hair journey, and how it led her to create an innovative new haircare line.  
Jan 29, 2020 @ 8:00 am

It's easy to see why the world is in awe of Taraji P. Henson. The actress is strikingly beautiful, exceptionally talented, and has long come across as one of the most suave and down-to-earth women in entertainment — plus, she's been known to give it to people straight. 

After spending a Monday afternoon with Henson at a photo studio in West Hollywood, I can confirm all of the above to be true. It's our first time meeting, but talking to the Golden Globe winner about her hair journey and how it led to the creation of her new haircare line TPH by Taraji feels akin to having a kiki with a girlfriend I've known all my life. Perhaps it's because when two Black women get together to talk about hair, there's something about that conversation that feels like home. Or maybe it's because after following her career for over 20 years, I've come to know Henson as a public figure that I trust, someone I know wouldn't embellish her hair story or the effectiveness of her collection to sell product. 

Henson is simply keeping it real when she says her latest venture — once her own secret formula — is something special.

Lucky for us, she's finally ready to share it with the world. "I want everyone to have a piece of Taraji," ​she tells me as we chat on one of the couches in the studio. And yes, she really means everyone.

It was Henson's mother Bernice Gordon that first taught the star about haircare. As a child, the actress, who grew up in D.C., remembers the weekly routine of her mom washing, blow drying, and braiding her natural hair into whatever style she requested, which sometimes included Gordon using a Marcel hot comb to give her daughter a classic '70s press. 

But around the time Henson turned five, her mom made the decision to give her a perm — a choice the Empire star says is her biggest hair regret to date, but one she doesn't fault her mother for making. 

"My mother was just overwhelmed with my hair because her texture and my texture are very different, and I had the nerve to be tender-headed," she laughs. "I was a very dramatic, rambunctious child. There were a lot of times where I was screaming and kicking and falling out, pretending to pass out. I put her through it." 

By the time Henson entered high school, her mother had long given up on being a part of wash days. "It got to a point where she couldn’t keep up with how eclectic I was as a child," the actress, who got engaged to NFL player Kelvin Hayden back in 2018, remembers, proving that even at a young age, she was already ahead of the curve when it came to hair. But the final straw came when the now 49-year-old opted to chop off all her hair in the ninth grade — a decision most girls at that age would likely be terrified to make. "She said to me, 'I'm not doing your hair anymore.' And I was like, 'yeah, that’s the point.'"

One thing Henson did hold onto, however, was her perm — for 26 years. It wasn't until she moved to Los Angeles and wrapped filming her breakthrough performance in John Singleton's 2001 cult classic Baby Boy that she made the decision to go back to being natural. "I learned to fall in love with my hair in L.A., because the weather is conducive to having natural hair," she shares. "In D.C., it was very humid." 

Kayla Reefer

The early aughts marked the start of a new millennium, but the concept of Black women embracing their innate textures wouldn't become mainstream until the next decade. In the interim, as a newcomer actress, Henson felt the pressure from Hollywood to straighten her hair to achieve the look that was seen as "acceptable" during that era. 

"There wasn’t any representation," the mother-of-one says. "Not like what we see now." In lieu of perm, this time Henson used styling tools instead, which eventually left her hair with severe heat damage and breakage. 

When her own hair wasn't out, Henson wore wigs and weaves on-set, or to do press, as many actresses do. And while she admits installs aren't her preference, the physical scalp irritation that came with them helped to lay the groundwork for the key product included in the TPH by Taraji line: the Master Cleanse scalp wash. However, it wasn't until 2016, while the actress was on a vacation in Mexico with a close friend and her daughter — each wearing weaves at the time — that she realized she should actually develop a haircare collection focused on caring for the roots. 

"At the time, I had to assemble [the cleanser] everywhere I went because nothing was out there that was conducive to this," she remembers. "So I put it all together and they went in the bathroom and used it and loved it. That’s when I was like, I think I’m onto something." 

She sure was. 

After testing out the entire TPH line, the godsend that is Master Cleanse automatically became a staple in my weekly wash routine. 

I've tried other scalp rinses before, and I've even made my own, but nothing else has compared. My issue was that I could never really get the product down onto my scalp. But with TPH's tri-touch applicator bottle, the witch hazel water, eucalyptus, and tea tree oil-rich formula can be be applied directly to my roots — leaving the skin feeling the cleanest and most refreshed it has ever felt before.

The bottle's design is also perfect for cleansing the scalp while wearing protective hairstyles, whether it be braids or weaves, all while avoiding unnecessary friction which can create unwanted frizz. 

"What I was noticing was that women were going to get these protective hairstyles and totally neglecting their hair," Henson says emphatically. "Thinking that just because it was in these protective hairstyles it was safe. You have to start with a healthy scalp. If you have bad soil, you expect to see a harvest?​​​​​​"

Kayla Reefer

With Master Cleanse as the matriarch of her haircare system, TPH is now a family of 17 knockout products that can be found at Target, including Never Salty, a sugar-based scalp scrub; Hustle & Co. co-wash, Ride or Die leave-in conditioner, and After Dark, an overnight deep conditioning mask — a little something for everyone, regardless of hair type or texture. 

"It’s for everybody because I’ve worn every kind of hair," she explains. "I wanted it to be all-inclusive, that’s my fan-base. And it's not only Black women who are wearing installs, everybody wears installs." 

To sweeten the deal, Henson also wanted to ensure her products were ultra-affordable — with nothing priced over $15 — all while crafting salon quality formulations, complete with high-end packaging. "I’m that type of girl," she muses. "It ain't no fun unless the homies finna have some."  

Beyond just her new line, the topic of hair is something that gets Henson understandably riled up, especially when I ask her how Black actresses deal with stylists still not being able to work with their hair on-set. She lets out a sigh and pauses for a second before she answers, likely reminiscing on her early days in the biz, before partnering with her now go-to guy Tym Wallace

"It's about having the power," she finally replies. "When they need you, they will go along with your plan. When I knew I had the power to request, I started just putting my foot down and said, 'No, I won’t do it unless I have my people.'"

"I'm a fighter," she continues. "I know I can fight." 

Henson then starts speaking on fellow actress Gabrielle Union, who in late 2019 was reportedly told on the set of America's Got Talent that her hairstyles were "too Black." 

"We are behind her, I got her back because this is ridiculous," she exclaims. "You’re saying that her hair is too Black for America? Then you don’t want Black Americans watching your show. My children and my daughters and my cousins or whoever, they need representation." 

This is exactly why Henson strongly believes that everyone should be speaking up on this type of discrimination to keep the conversation alive, even those who just entered the industry. The time for playing nice on-set to appease untrained stylists or Hollywood execs who only think of diversity as a box to be ticked is over. Black actresses and their curly, coily hair are here to stay — and that deserves to be celebrated both in front and behind the camera. "For so long we have been told that our hair in its natural state is ugly, or it’s nappy or it’s been given these horrible descriptions," Henson states. "How can we fight what is naturally ours? Embrace it. Our hair defies gravity, think about that. Our hair points to the heavens, that’s powerful."

Even for those who aren't Black, the actress' goal through her new collection is to help people feel great about taking care of their hair, whether it's all natural, or under a wig, weave, or braids.

Kayla Reefer

It's around 4 p.m. PST when Henson has to wrap. She's on her way to tape an episode of The Late Late Show with James Corden alongside Chance the Rapper and Lil' Nas X. But she offers some advice for anyone who may be feeling a little unsure about embracing their hair before she goes.

"God broke the mold when he made you; there’s no one else out there like you," she says. "Just celebrate that. When you just commit to loving yourself it’s infectious. Everyone else looks at you like, 'Oh, what kind of magic she got?'" 

Now, she's taken that mantra and bottled it.